JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel warned the Palestinians on Sunday against unilaterally declaring an independent state next year after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat again asserted his right to do so.
The sharp exchange came as a pair of U.S. envoys were holding meetings with both sides to lay the groundwork for a round of high-level London talks on May 4.
Mediator Dennis Ross, accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, and were to meet later Sunday with Arafat.
A day earlier, Arafat told reporters in Gaza that the Palestinians would press ahead with a declaration of statehood in May 1999 whether or not there is an agreement with Israel.
Top Netanyahu aide David Bar-Illan said Sunday that such a move would not only violate the peace accords but result in “the total scuttling of the agreement.”
Meanwhile, another top Israeli official indicated Israel would resist any U.S. pressure to extend the scope of its next withdrawal from the West Bank.
Netanyahu met Sunday with his ministers of defense, infrastructure and industry to discuss the troop pullbacks.
The United States is seeking an Israeli withdrawal from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank, but Netanyahu has said such a pullback would compromise Israel’s security.
Arafat, who originally asked for a much larger pullback, has said he would accept the U.S. initiative calling for a phased Israeli withdrawal coupled with Palestinian steps to fight terrorism.